On Tuesdays, I’ll be discussing typical tropes, cliches, and stereotypes used in writing and how you can avoid them when crafting your own story.
We’re all familiar with the role of the magical negro — or magical non-white character. While writing a story, sometimes an author will think, “Wait! I don’t have any people of color! I better add one as a side character so people won’t think I’m racist!”
Why this is bad: Even if you’re not literally thinking that, putting in a side character of color just for the sake of having a character of color is, in itself, racist. And so is giving them a power or specific trait just to help your protagonist. The magical negro typically has little to no backstory and stays out of the limelight, sometimes using excuses like he’s too “wise” or “pacifistic” to continue with the protagonist and help her on her journey. This can be black characters with deep spiritual wisdom (Stephen King has used this trope so often that it’s basically become a staple in his books), Native Americans with a spiritual or profound connection with the earth and nature, or Asian characters obsessed with their and their family’s honor. They come in, offer the protag some advice or help, and then disappear to never be heard again (except maybe with a wink at the end).
How you fix it: Don’t put characters of color in your story just because you need a character of color. If you’re going to put one in, they need to be just as well-written, well-researched, and complex as anyone else. Don’t use these characters as PC filler. Use them as real, legitimate characters. Don’t have some random wise black dude come up and give your character some sagely advice. If you’re going to do that, then break the trope by having that character come with your protag — and kick ass or actually affect the plot. Many times, the “magical negro” is meant to offer your character guidance on her path and then fade into the background. Don’t let that happen.
Bottom Line: GIVE YOUR CHARACTER SOME DAMN DEVELOPMENT. There is no excuse for your character to fit into the magical negro trope, especially if that’s the only role in the story that a POC fills. But if you give that character the same hardcore development you’ve reserved for your main and side characters, then you’ll be well on your way to writing a POC correctly — which means, writing them the same way you write your white characters and not lazily relying on white media’s stereotypes and not-so-well-hidden racism.
So, go on, write, and break that trope.